Thursday, 17 June 2010

Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis

It's one hundred years since the first performance of Vaughan William's Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. This has become part of the canon of British (or should that be English) popular classics (voted number 3 in its Hall of Fame by Classic FM listeners). An interesting article in last weekends Guardian contextualises the piece. What I think the article brings out is the role classical music played in the Neo-Romantic project. For me, the movement really flowers in the post-WWI period, as a direct reaction to the slaughter in Flanders and the twin perceived threats of fascism and communism. One of its key characteristics is the engagement in a metaphorical archaeology, digging into the past for powerful images and juxtaposing them, often anachronistically, with a more modern symbolic repertoire or stylistic techniques. A good example of this is Eric Ravilious' series of pictures of chalk hill figures seen from or next to railways. The Guardian article shows how in the first decade of the 20th century a series of British composers were carrying out musical antiquarianism. They were not only rescuing the rich tradition of Tudor church music (Byrd, Tallis, Gibbons, Taverner, Dowland), but also refashioning and using it, along side folk song, in new compositions. I find it interesting that most of the traditional narratives about the rise of Neo-Romanticism tend to sideline music focusing mainly on visual arts and to a lesser extent literature.